Career women should try harder – especially in the Midwest

Ryan and I recently celebrated one year of dating officially. What makes this more impressive is that we’re both extremely career-oriented. Even more extraordinary is the fact that we’re not married with babies.

There’s a lot of pressure to settle down, never mind the fact that I don’t feel anywhere near ready to have children. And while I can imagine my life with Ryan, I don’t see the rush. With previous boyfriends, things could have ended at any moment. Now I have time.

In the Midwest, however, I do not. Twenty-six years of age is starting to get old and the female role models to dispel such rumors are few and far between. I can’t, in fact, think of a single woman in Madison that I look up to and follow for her career. Perhaps because the women I know in leadership roles exemplify negative stereotypes, and perhaps because there are simply more men than women leading business here.

It’s difficult, yes. When I graduated college and entered the real world, I had no idea how difficult it would be. Even in the start-up world, women are barely a consideration. When it comes to founding successful companies, apparently old guys rule. Young guys have a shot too. But women aren’t even part of the equation.

And while I love my job and am lucky to have been given opportunities I wasn’t afforded in previous positions, the patterns, however unintentional, are still there. It’s predominately male in our office and women are predictably relegated to the customer service and marketing departments.

The same pattern is propagated throughout society. For instance, Nisha Chittal reports on a study from Media Matters for America that shows on average, Sunday Morning show guests are 80 percent male (on shows like Chris Matthews, Fox News Sunday, Face the Nation, and Meet the Press).

And yet women do seem to make great strides career-wise. Ernst & Young went so far as to say that the world needs more female bosses. “Investing in women to drive economic growth is not simply about morality or fairness. It’s about honing a competitive edge,” Ernst & Young chairman and CEO Lou Pagnutti said. “Women have contributed more to global GDP growth than have either new technology or the new giants, China and India.”

But the Midwest seems to be particularly fond of holding onto the old formula of success for women: meet, marry, opt-out. This is purely anecdotal of course. The newest Census study shows it’s actually a myth that privileged, well-educated women are opting-out. Even when broken down by geographic location, the Midwest has drastically more married couples with children and both parents in the labor force, compared to say, California or New York (see page 15 in the report).

Which makes me think we’re not telling the right stories.

I recently broke down to Ryan, “I don’t want to be like the young couples we sit with at weddings or the rich ones we meet at events. Their eyes are so vacant. So disappointed. They’re stunned or seemingly regretful. It scares me.”

“Rebecca,” he replied, “do you think we’re anything like those couples?”

I sniffled and agreed, maybe he was right. But I need women to be stronger role models and more outspoken – whatever path they choose. I don’t want to be afraid of motherhood. And I don’t want to be afraid of missed opportunity either.

There are some enthralling stories about the beautiful complexity that is marriage and motherhood. But these stories just don’t exist about being a woman in the workplace. We need to start telling those. Now. Not just recognizing powerful career women, say on a list or with an award, but telling the stories that infuse society. I need to hear more stories with women that inform my consciousness each morning. And I need to hear them right here in Wisconsin.